The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Book excerpt: Nashville’s Amy Frogge used ‘grassroots resistance’ to counter corporate school reform

From Diane Ravitch’s new boook, ‘Slaying Goliath’


Diane Ravitch’s new book, “Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools,” introduces readers to advocates who she says have successfully fought off the people she calls “Disrupters, ” those who were trying to privatize America’s public education system.

The day before Knopf published it, the book was already in the top five books on Amazon in the categories of government social policy, charter schools and education administration books.

Here is an excerpt from “Slaying Goliath” about one public education advocate who fought back: Amy Frogge of Nashville.

Amy Frogge is a lawyer and a parent of children who attended Gower Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2010, the city suffered a devastating flood, and people came together from across the city and even from out of state to help rebuild the damaged neighborhoods. Frogge was impressed by the energy that is generated when people coalesce behind a common goal. Aware that the Parent Teacher Organization at Gower Elementary was moribund, she and another parent decided to rebuild it. Over a year, they enhanced parent engagement, developed new community partnerships, and helped to bring about major improvements in the school’s performance, atmosphere, and culture.
Determined to “give back to her community,” Frogge decided to run for the Metro Nashville school board in 2012. With the help of many volunteers, she rang doorbells across her district. She raised $25,000. Her opponent was endorsed by Nashville mayor Karl Dean, the Chamber of Commerce, the local teachers’ union, and the Gates-funded group called Stand for Children. Her opponent spent $125,000, five times what Frogge spent. But Frogge won by a two-to-one landslide. When she ran, she was unaware of the national debates about privatization. She just wanted to do her part as a citizen. She quickly learned about the efforts by national charter chains to gain a foothold in Nashville and decided that this was not good for the local public schools.
When Amy Frogge was elected, the Metro Nashville school board was in the midst of a battle with the state over whether to allow a charter school managed by Great Hearts Academies, an Arizona-based charter chain, to open in Nashville. The Metro Nashville board rejected its application because Great Hearts wanted to locate in a mostly white neighborhood with no plans to transport black students from other parts of the city. The board insisted that the charter must serve a diverse enrollment. The board’s refusal to authorize the Great Hearts proposal infuriated the state commissioner of education, Kevin Huffman, who was determined to increase the number of charter schools in Tennessee. Huffman (the ex- husband of Michelle Rhee) had previously worked for Teach for America. He had the backing of Republican governor Bill Haslam and Nashville mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat.
Commissioner Huffman punished the recalcitrant Metro Nashville school board by withholding $3.4 million from its public schools (but not its charter schools).
The day after Amy Frogge’s election to her local school board, she got a call from The Wall Street Journal, and that was her first inkling that she had stepped into a national brawl. She ran for the school board to make the public schools better but soon realized that debates over charters completely dominated the board’s agenda. Out-of-state charters were competing with the public schools for money and students, and she didn’t see how that helped to improve the public schools. She provided the deciding vote, and a 5-4 majority on the board again voted against allowing Great Hearts to open a charter. Only five months after her election, she addressed the education committee of the state legislature and urged it not to give the state the power to impose charters against the will of local boards, which would have been a dream come true for the Disrupters, who oppose democratic control by local school boards. She pointed out that the existing charters had empty seats, and the city did not need more charters. What it truly needed was more funding for its existing public schools.
Frogge emerged as an articulate critic of privatization and Corporate Disruption. In her role as a board member, she wanted expanded recess time, more time for art and music, less time devoted to testing, and increased funding for the schools, but these issues were overshadowed by the persistent struggle between the school board and the state over charter expansion. She courageously stood up to the right-wing governor, the legislature, the state commissioner, and Mayor Dean, who were all pushing for more charters in Nashville. The local newspapers criticized her as “divisive” and “shrill” for taking a stand (these are the words applied to women who speak out but not to men, who are seen as “forceful” and “strong”). The newspapers grew tired of her complaints about the large amounts of outside money that poured into school board races.
In 2014, Frogge asked for time to deliver her thoughts to the board about charter schools. She asked her colleagues to consider the “endgame” in the drive for more charters. She spoke of profiteering, corporate intrusion, the exclusion of low-scoring students, and increased segregation in charters. And she worried about the disruptive effect of charters on communities. In this excerpt, Frogge summarizes the risk that charters pose to school districts:
Last year, I voted against charter schools because of fiscal impact, and I’m inclined to do the same this year unless we come up with a plan. If we are going to pay more for charter schools, we need to figure out what else to cut from the budget. . . .
Although there are many involved in the charter school movement who have excellent motives, the charter school movement overall has become increasingly tied to profit motives as corporations interfere with education. I have watched organizations with shadowy motives exploit our Tennessee legislature. They operate like vultures, feeding hefty campaign donations and bad information to legislators through their plentiful lobbyists. They do not operate in good faith.
The charter movement is nationally funded and driven by organizations like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which promotes and protects corporate interests and works to pass legislation that allows corporations access to more profits. The state charter authorizer came from ALEC, by the way. The Waltons, owners of Walmart, which is notorious for paying its employees such low wages that they must rely on government assistance to eat, are driving charter legislation. Hedge funders, banks and the wealthiest Americans can double their investments through generous tax credits in just seven years by investing in charters. Surely groups like these are not primarily interested in helping low income children.
The goal at the legislative level is to gain access to a steady stream of tax dollars with limited public accountability. That’s why these special interest groups contend that there should be no democratically elected school boards. The desired result is to squelch the democratic process in favor of appointed bureaucracy, to take away local control of schools, and to promote less accountability and transparency for charter schools.
In 2016, Frogge ran again for the school board, and she was now Enemy Number One for the Disrupters. In hopes of ousting her, they funneled over $200,000 into the race, most of it directed through the Gates-funded Stand for Children. She won again, receiving 65 percent of the vote. Voters liked the principled stand that she took supporting public schools and demanding accountability and transparency for charters.
Amy Frogge recalled in an interview with T. C. Weber, a Nashville parent-blogger, that her husband had given her a clip of the Reverend William Barber, the charismatic leader of the Resistance in North Carolina who has often been compared to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reverend Barber has championed progressive causes of every kind, including public education. Frogge remembered this message:
“When you’re called to service it’s often not convenient. It’s often very difficult and it is exhausting, but we are not allowed to give up. We don’t get to determine when it’s done. I think many of us have made huge sacrifices to continue to try to advocate for students and our teachers and our families. . . . I feel that I’ve been given a unique opportunity to make an impact, and not many people have that opportunity. I’m not allowed to squander it even though I often would like to just move to an island, buy a tiny house, and be done with the controversy because I hate controversy. I don’t like conflict at all, and I’ve been in the midst of the worst sort of conflict for four years. But the work’s not done, though I think we have made a lot of headway. We’re ready now to have positive conversations and shift the focus on the work that I think will make the greatest impact on the greatest number of children.”
After the Disrupters were thrashed in the second round of school board elections, the climate around school issues changed. The conversation no longer was dominated by discussion of where, how, and whether to authorize charters but about how to improve the education of all the children of Nashville. It wasn’t money that made the difference. The conversation changed because of the courage and persistence of volunteers and of leaders like Amy Frogge.
Amy Frogge did not realize that she was on the receiving end of a national campaign to disrupt public education, led by groups like the hedge fund managers’ Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and billionaires like the Waltons, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg, who are intent on gaining control of local and state school boards. Big money flowed into school board races in Louisiana, Los Angeles, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Newark, Denver, Rhode Island, Minneapolis, Washington State, New York, Rhode Island, and other locales. The Network for Public Education Action Fund documented the targeting of districts and states by super-rich elites, led by billionaires. What chance did ordinary citizens have to run for their school board when out-of-state organizations bundled twice as much, three times as much, five times as much money from contributors across the nation and funded their opponents?
It is fundamentally antidemocratic when billionaires who live in New York City, Seattle, Connecticut, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley conspire to overwhelm candidates in school board races in other cities and states with their limitless funding. This is not a partisan issue; the billionaires include both Republicans and Democrats determined to promote privatization. What appears to local citizens as a contest between two candidates is all too often a struggle between local parent groups and national organizations ready to spend whatever it takes to win control. The deck is stacked because of the money advantage of the Disrupters. Fortunately, they do not always win. Amy Frogge proved that grassroots resistance, when it is sufficiently alert, determined, and organized, can beat Big Money.